It's too new to be called a trend, but it's too revealing to be
written off as mere coincidence. Hollywood movies are taking a look
at capital punishment, indicating that a subject too incendiary for
many politicians to explore - beyond rote sermons on the issue,
usually advocating death as a panacea for serious crime - is
finding a measure of investigation and analysis through the lens of
Such analysis is rarely profound, but it shows that more people
are thinking more deeply about this troubling matter than many news
reports and stump speeches would suggest.
Exhibit A is "Dead Man Walking," which earned an Academy Award
for Susan Sarandon's portrayal of a Roman Catholic nun who
befriends a condemned killer in the months before his execution.
Exhibit B is the very different "Eye for an Eye," with Sally Field
as a vengeful mom who terminates her daughter's killer after a
lenient criminal-justice system lets her down. Also relevant is
"Aileen Wournos: The Selling of a Serial Killer," a bone-chilling
documentary about self-serving interests surrounding a tragic
death-row case not long ago.
The newest entry on the list is "Last Dance," a movie so similar
to "Dead Man Walking" that a simple title change - "Dead Woman
Walking" - would summarize much of the plot.
Sharon Stone plays Cindy Liggett, sentenced to death for
murdering two teenagers during a drug-dazed burst of violence. The
stranger who takes an interest in her case is a minor functionary
from the state government, assigned to petition on her behalf for a
commuted sentence of life imprisonment without possibility of
parole. To his surprise, Liggett isn't interested in seeking the
governor's mercy. All she has left is the mere fact of being alive,
and she intends to dispose of this on her own terms - not those of
a judicial system that cares more about policy and procedure than
redemption and regeneration.
The young bureaucrat has faced difficulties of his own, however:
drug abuse, alcohol problems, a sense of guilt over wasting the
advantages he inherited from his privileged family. Despite the
huge differences in their backgrounds and personalities, he finds
Liggett's situation too compelling to ignore.
Becoming her advocate and companion, he sets about obtaining a
commutation regardless of her wishes. But fierce obstacles await
him, including the fact that the governor is facing a reelection
battle and needs the "tough on crime" image Liggett's execution
would conveniently provide.
To be convincing in its arguments, a drama about capital
punishment needs to acknowledge more than one side of this highly
charged issue. …